When Trying To Prevent Road Accidents, Follow the Swedish Example

January 5, 2015

Marina Wes Rzeczpospolita

The cost of road accidents in Poland is as high as 30 billion zloty annually. Half of this amount could be saved – writes the World Bank representative in Poland.

Too many Poles are still dying on the nation’s roads. Poland has one of the highest road death rates in the EU. In 2013, only Romania had a higher road fatality rate than Poland.

The country’s EU neighbours are doing a much better job of reducing traffic deaths; the average reduction in road deaths in Poland over the period 2001-2011 was only 24%, while the average reduction in the EU was almost double that, at 45%.

The police and speed cameras are making a difference

In 2001, Poland’s fatality rate was lower than the rates in Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Portugal, but ten years later, those five countries have cut deaths significantly, while Poland has not been nearly as successful. Poland is, slowly, beginning to cut road deaths, mostly because of better speed limit enforcement.

More police on the streets, combined with fixed road cameras, mobile cameras, and cameras that monitor average speeds are all helping prevent accidents.  In 2012, deaths on Poland’s roads dropped by 15%, saving 618 lives and around 1.2 billion zloty in economic loss. In 2013, deaths fell by a further 6%, saving another 214 Poles and an additional 400 million zloty.

Still, too many people are killed or seriously injured on the roads. Poland can and will do better. Everyone pays for road accidents, whether through taxes, which finance emergency response crews, hospital stays, rehabilitation, lost income during recovery and, in too many cases, lifelong care for the badly hurt. According to estimates, that price tag reaches around 30 billion zloty a year.

" The Swedish system of 2+1 roads is 2 lanes one way and one the other, with the lanes swapping every now and then to allow overtaking in a safe way. "
Marina Wes

Marina Wes

World Bank Country Manager for Poland

The poorest are hit the hardest

That money could be better spent on education, health care, or even on road improvements. Serious crashes do the most harm to the poorest members of the society; the loss of a breadwinner can drive a family into deep financial trouble.

For these reasons, improving road safety in Poland aligns strongly with the World Bank’s key objectives of ending poverty and increasing shared prosperity. The World Bank, through its Warsaw office, welcomes the opportunity to continue to provide expert assistance on road safety as well as on other critical development issues.

Roads to be redesigned

Sweden’s “safe systems” approach to road safety can be a model for Poland. “Safe systems” accepts that people will make mistakes, and aims to protect the human body from the consequences of error.

It means, for example, redesigning roads so that severe impacts don’t occur, or building roadside barriers from materials like flexible wire rope, which is more forgiving of driver mistakes. Other approaches include reconfiguring roads to separate traffic lanes and prevent head-on crashes, and building vehicles with effective airbags that protect human bodies form the trauma of impact.

The “safe systems” approach posits that all elements affecting road safety should be geared toward protecting human life. Those elements include safer roadbeds, traffic law enforcement, vehicle standards, rescue services and education and communication. An example is what Sweden calls 2+1 roads: 2 lanes one way and one the other, with wire rope barriers down the middle and on each side, with the lanes swapping every now and then to allow overtaking in both directions.  The introduction of these designs caused a drop of over 90% in deaths on the roads.

Take your foot off the gas

We must also help ourselves, our friends, our families, and our society. Safety depends on people obeying the speed limit, wearing seatbelts, and using child restraints. The best performing countries boast seatbelt use of 98% or 99%. But in Poland, seatbelt use is not as common. Based on recent surveys by the Secretariat of the National Road Safety Council, 84% of front seat occupants in Poland wear seat belts and only 59% use seatbelts in the rear seat.

High stakes

In addition to saving human lives, there is an economic argument to be made. If Poles committed to the simple action of wearing a seatbelt and driving at the speed limit, by 2020 the country could reduce annual road deaths by half, compared to 2010. Seatbelt use and lower speeds could also prevent many thousands of serious road accident injuries per year. And such measures could save at least 15 billion zloty annually, starting in 2020, as compared to the financial cost of road crashes in 2010. This could add considerably to the savings that would benefit Polish economy.